Piloting (Without The Plane)
As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I would be working on the film part of my literature review and it did not disappoint! This week has been incredibly fun for me, as I read through a total of five pilot scripts for shows with morally ambiguous characters. My advisor and I tried to pick shows that were of different genres and that helped a lot, especially when it came to the analysis of the episodes. I want to issue a huge SPOILER ALERT right now, because although I will be talking about just the first episode, I will refer to scenes that appear later on in the seasons.
Why Pilot Scripts?
First of all, I want to define a pilot episode. A pilot episode is a “standalone episode of a TV series used to sell the proof of concept of a new show to television network executives” and once that episode is given the thumbs-up, it can be turned into a series. I chose to read pilot episode scripts as part of my literature review because it gave me a way to understand what the writers were aiming for. I also read the scripts without watching the shows, a conscious decision I made because I wanted to see the vision without the acting clouding my judgement. While I had watched a few of these shows before, such as Fleabag and Sherlock, enough time had passed to which I was able to read the scripts without the show flooding back to me.
My goal this week for reading these pilots was to understand from a written perspective how moral ambiguity can be unraveled and how it subtly gets depicted. Remember, pilots are the first time we are introduced to these characters, meaning we have no prior knowledge of them, so they are a clean slate in our minds. Because of this clean slate, we are more prone to focus on subtle aspects of their behavior. With each script I read, I encountered a different way in which moral ambiguity was revealed. Here is the list of pilots I read.
- Sherlock (2010)
- Yellowjackets (2021)
- Fleabag (2016)
- Killing Eve (2018)
- Breaking Bad (2008)
The one takeaway while I was reading the script for Sherlock was that this was an example of a man who did good and seemingly moral things, but for the wrong reason. Sherlock is a man who gets consulted for cases that the Scotland Yard can’t solve, and while he is the right person for the job and does his job impeccably well, he doesn’t care who he hurts or how he does it. Sherlock saves lives and brings people to justice, and yet he is an incredibly rude person.
While reading the script, I noticed how harsh and curt Sherlock was. His wording was too the point, almost hitting the point too hard. When hearing there is another case, he exclaims “And I thought it was going to be a boring evening. Serial suicides, and now a note – oh, it’s Christmas!” In another scene, Sherlock even tells a man to stop out of the blue and elaborates “You were thinking. It’s annoying.” He also gets slightly annoyed when Watson insinuates that he is an “amateur,” and feels the need to explain all his observations about Watson, as if to show off. Sherlock is the perfect example of someone who is morally ambiguous, as his goal are moral (he wants cases to be solved, and by extension, lives will be saved) but on the other hand, his actions are immoral (he wants cases to be solved for his own satisfaction and he has no regard for people’s feelings).
This show was a bit more complicated for me to analyze, but the main takeaway I got was that the writers revealed the moral ambiguity through subtle foreshadowing. The episode I read does not fully encapsulate the total amount of heinous acts that occur in this show. That being said, it does a fantastic job of setting up the moral ambiguity for later on in the season. While reading this episode, I noticed that what set this show apart from the others was the presence of a group.
This show revolves around a high school girls soccer team, and these girls, like most teenagers, had drama to start off with. One girl is secretly messing around with her best friend’s boyfriend, while another girl “accidentally” injured her teammate. However, we can excuse these behaviors because they are teenagers, and we don’t think too much of it. That is, until we know that this is set across a Lord of the Flies backdrop, in which the girls are stranded in the forest. From reading this script, I understood more about how moral ambiguity can be used in subtle hints that will eventually point to and culminate in a larger issue.
I could talk about quite literally anything Fleabag-adjacent, however, I am going to stick with the one point that I took away from this pilot, which is that moral ambiguity is understood through Fleabag’s relatability. Throughout this episode, Fleabag is an incredibly honest person, due to her breaking the fourth wall to narrate to us directly. We know exactly what she is thinking, and because of this, she becomes a relatable character. From when she awkwardly flirts with a man on the bus to when she wears her sister’s top that she stole, we see parts of ourselves in Fleabag.
That being said, the writers reveal Fleabag’s moral ambiguity through her being so honest with us. We watch as she steals money from her date’s wallet, but we also see how she uses the money to pay for a drunk girl’s cab. By getting to know Fleabag on an intimate level, we understand her actions and why she does what she does. By talking to us directly, we are able to form a relationship with her, in which we can better empathize with her.
Similar to Yellowjackets, Killing Eve sets up the moral ambiguity through subtle foreshadowing that will be sure to pay off later on in the season. The thing that differentiates this show from Yellowjackets, though, is that it sets up the leading characters to be the typical hero-villain duo. Eve works in law enforcement and is snarky, but in a fun way; meanwhile, Villanelle is an assassin with great fashion taste.
From reading the script, I was under the impression that Villanelle will turn out to be the more morally ambiguous character, as we don’t know a lot about her backstory. One important detail that was purposefully left out of this episode was her motive – we don’t know why Villanelle is an assassin. There are hints throughout the episode that there could be multiple reasons, but we don’t know for sure. Moral ambiguity of these characters is sprinkled around in tiny doses, and because of this we can predict that these two women who are supposed to fit their roles, will eventually end up doing something out of their expected character trope.
Whenever people ask me for an example of a morally ambiguous character, Walter White is the one that comes to mind almost immediately. He is a primary example of moral ambiguity. The reason for this is that the writers of Breaking Bad revealed his moral ambiguity by first building up a backstory. When we meet White, the stage directions claim “He’s not a guy we’d pay attention to if we passed him on the street.” Throughout the episode, we learn that White is a high school chemistry teacher that no one respects. His pregnant wife and disabled son rely on his income, so he picks up a job washing cars, which we learn is incredibly demeaning because he was a respectable and reputable scientist. So when we hear he has inoperable cancer, we can’t help but feel bad for him. By creating backstory, the writers have not only allowed us, but encouraged us to support him… even when he starts cooking methamphetamine.
While I have not covered every single way moral ambiguity gets expressed and revealed through pilot episodes, I have selected a few effective examples that hopefully make analyzing moral ambiguity easier. Next week, I will be creating a list of shows and movies to watch and start watching a few.
Until next time!
- “What Is A Pilot Episode? 7 Notable TV Show Pilots – 2023.” MasterClass, Https://Www.Masterclass.Com/Articles/What-Is-A-Pilot-Episode.
- Waller-Bridge, Phoebe. Screenplay Of Killing Eve. Provided By Amy Berg.
- Gilligan, Vance. Screenplay Of Breaking Bad. 2005. Provided By Amy Berg.
- Waller-Bridge, Phoebe. Screenplay Of Fleabag. 2015. Provided By Amy Berg.
- Moffat, Steve. Screenplay Of Sherlock. Provided By Amy Berg.
- Lyle, Ashley And Nickerson, Bart. Screenplay Of Yellowjackets. 2019. Provided By Amy Berg.